Stories at Every Turn: The Kingdom through the lens of a local photographer

Stories at Every Turn: The Kingdom through the lens of a local photographer

Exploring the Kingdom’s streets with Saudi photographer Sarah Alansary
08 November 23
Photo Essay: Sarah Alansary

A native of Madinah, Sarah Alansary has spent her entire life in Riyadh, a city she loves and knows intimately – perhaps it is this deep connection that has allowed the street photographer to beautifully document the Kingdom's capital over the years.

Through her lens, Sarah Alansary has had the privilege to explore other locations as well, and meet incredible people along the way. She values the freedom to capture images on her own terms.

During a one-on-one with the talented photographer, we delved into her beginnings, experiences, creative process, and how photography enables her to cultivate a distinct voice.

What inspired you to get into street photography?

What I find interesting about it is that it captures candid scenes that tell stories. Street photography has the ability to make a seemingly ordinary view become extraordinary. Capturing the beauty in something that is often ignored is what inspired me to get into this type of photography in the first place – and still inspires me today.

Would you consider photography a passion or a career?

Definitely a passion. It’s a means of self-expression and a creative outlet. It has enabled me to explore different places and meet a diversity of people. I rarely photograph as a job; I prefer shooting for myself and having complete creative freedom.

What is your day job?

I studied architecture in Prince Sultan University, and I recently graduated. I currently work in the field of design with Diriyah Company.

What first drew you to street photography?

When I first started learning photography, I was drawn to capturing cityscapes and architecture. However, when I started going deeper into the art of photography, I was introduced – mainly through social media – to the genres of street and documentary photography of both local and international photographers. I loved that street photography often involves capturing people, and I wondered if I would be able to take pictures of people as well.

What do you think makes a memorable street photograph?

I think it’s about capturing a moment that can’t be replicated, one that is unique to its specific scene. I also believe that a good street photograph is one that successfully delivers a certain emotion to the viewer.

What is the story you would like to tell with your photos?

Throughout history, there have been very few widely-recognised photos of the Kingdom taken by its own residents. I want to document contemporary Saudi from the perspective of a person actually living in it. I love highlighting the small, everyday moments in people’s lives and finding the interesting in the ordinary.

How does black and white versus colour play into your work?

I find that black and white and colour photos evoke different emotions. I feel that some photos only reach their full potential when in black and white. However, I must admit that I’m usually more drawn to colours and enjoy colour photography. I’m very inspired by many famous colour photographers such as Alex Webb and Harry Gruyaert.

Do you have a story or photograph that has been memorable to you?

I was taking photos during Saudi Founding Day when I saw an old woman in an abaya, wearing a traditional gold headpiece as a way of celebrating. I approached her and asked to take her portrait, to which she agreed. However, what stood out to me was when she mentioned that even though she had a leg injury and was supposed to go to the hospital that day, she decided to celebrate Founding Day instead. She didn’t want to miss the opportunity to celebrate the glory of the country, even though she was in pain.

How has the country changed through your lens over time?

I think with all the recent positive changes taking place in Saudi, I’m very lucky to be a photographer in this day and age. It feels like the ideal time to be a photographer in the Kingdom. I love how this medium has the power to document important moments in history, and I hope I can look back on my work someday and find moments like that.

How has social media played a role in your work?

I think social media, for me, has had a positive role. It first exposed me to the genre of street photography, and allowed me to connect with many amazing photographers. It also provided the opportunity to showcase my work, and hopefully that can inspire others to share theirs as well.

How do you choose the subject of your photos?

I look for people who are doing something interesting, wearing something unique, or conveying a certain emotion. Sometimes I’m drawn to the subject because of external factors, such as lighting, surrounding shapes that frame the subject well, interesting colours in the background, and so on.

How do you make your subjects feel at ease?

In general, I try not to be invasive and I try to blend in, drawing very little attention to myself. When taking a portrait specifically, I first have a brief conversation with the subject, and explain to them why I want to take a photo. Some people are initially hesitant, but after I explain my reasons for wanting to take their photo and why I do photography in general, they usually agree. I do think that honesty is the most effective tool in such situations.

From the many portraits you've taken, are there any that stand out as particularly meaningful?

While no specific portrait comes to mind, I genuinely like taking pictures of people during moments of pure happiness and joy. I just love capturing the smile on someone’s face! There’s nothing like it.